Three strategies to help you stop putting things off
There’s that project you’ve left on the backburner — the one with the deadline that’s growing uncomfortably near. And there’s the client whose phone call you really should return — the one that does nothing but complain and eat up your valuable time. Wait, weren’t you going to try to go to the gym more often this year?
Can you imagine how much less guilt, stress, and frustration you would feel if you could somehow just make yourself do the things you don’t want to do when you are actually supposed to do them? Not to mention how much happier and more effective you would be?
The good news (and it’s very good news) is that you can get better about not putting things off, if you use the right strategy. Figuring out which strategy to use depends on why you are procrastinating in the first place:
Reason #1 You are putting something off because you are afraid you will screw it up.
Solution: Adopt a “prevention focus.”
There are two ways to look at any task. You can do something because you see it as a way to end up better off than you are now — as an achievement or accomplishment. As in, if I complete this project successfully I will impress my boss, or if I work out regularly I will look amazing. Psychologists call this a promotion focus – and research shows that when you have one, you are motivated by the thought of making gains, and work best when you feel eager and optimistic. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, if you are afraid you will screw up on the task in question, this is not the focus for you. Anxiety and doubt undermine promotion motivation, leaving you less likely to take any action at all.
What you need is a way of looking at what you need to do that isn’t undermined by doubt —ideally, one that thrives on it. When you have a prevention focus, instead of thinking about how you can end up better off, you see the task as a way to hang on to what you’ve already got — to avoid loss. For the prevention-focused, successfully completing a project is a way to keep your boss from being angry or thinking less of you. Working out regularly is a way to not “let yourself go.” Decades of research, which I describe in my book Focus, shows that prevention motivation is actually enhanced by anxiety about what might go wrong. When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action. The more worried you are, the faster you are out of the gate.
I know this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, particularly if you are usually more the promotion-minded type, but there is probably no better way to get over your anxiety about screwing up than to give some serious thought to all the dire consequences of doing nothing at all. Go on, scare the pants off yourself. It feels awful, but it works.
Reason #2 You are putting something off because you don’t “feel” like doing it.
Solution: Make like Spock and ignore your feelings. They’re getting in your way.
In his excellent book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman points out that much of the time, when we say things like “I just can’t get out of bed early in the morning“ or “I just can’t get myself to exercise,” what we really mean is that we can’t get ourselves to feel like doing these things. After all, no one is tying you to your bed every morning. Intimidating bouncers aren’t blocking the entrance to your gym. Physically, nothing is stopping you — you just don’t feel like it. But as Burkeman asks, “Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it?”
Think about that for a minute, because it’s really important. Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea — without consciously realizing it — that to be motivated and effective we need to feel like we want to take action. We need to be eager to do so. I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100 percent nonsense. Yes, on some level you need to be committed to what you are doing — you need to want to see the project finished, or get healthier, or get an earlier start to your day. But you don’t need to feel like doing it.
In fact, as Burkeman points out, many of the most prolific artists, writers, and innovators have become so in part because of their reliance on work routines that forced them to put in a certain number of hours a day, no matter how uninspired (or, in many instances, hungover) they might have felt. Burkeman reminds us of renowned artist Chuck Close’s observation that “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
So if you are sitting there, putting something off because you don’t feel like it, remember that you don’t actually need to feel like it. There is nothing stopping you.
Reason #3 You are putting something off because it’s hard, boring, or otherwise unpleasant.
Solution: Use if-then planning.
Too often, we try to solve this particular problem with sheer will: Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner. Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never put it off in the first place. Studies show that people routinely overestimate their capacity for self-control, and rely on it too often to keep them out of hot water.
Do yourself a favor, and embrace the fact that your willpower is limited, and that it may not always be up to the challenge of getting you to do things you find difficult, tedious, or otherwise awful. Instead, use if-then planning to get the job done.
Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take to complete a project — it’s also deciding where and when you will take them.
If it is 2 p.m., then I will stop what I’m doing and start work on the report Bob asked for.
If my boss doesn’t mention my request for a raise at our meeting, then I will bring it up again before the meeting ends.
By deciding in advance exactly what you’re going to do, and when and where you’re going to do it, there’s no deliberating when the time comes. No do I really have to do this now?, or can this wait till later? or maybe I should do something else instead. It’s when we deliberate that willpower becomes necessary to make the tough choice. But if-then plans dramatically reduce the demands placed on your willpower, by ensuring that you’ve made the right decision way ahead of the critical moment. In fact, if-then planning has been shown in over 200 studies to increase rates of goal attainment and productivity by 200-300 percent on average.
I realize that the three strategies I’m offering you — thinking about the consequences of failure, ignoring your feelings, and engaging in detailed planning — don’t sound as fun as advice like “Follow your passion!” or “Stay positive!” But they have the decided advantage of actually being effective — which, as it happens, is exactly what you’ll be if you use them.
Change can be truly life affirming if we use it to sharpen and focus our minds.
We’re more than a month into 2014 and already, it’s happened. Most of our New Year’s resolutions have been abandoned, forgotten, or somehow just fallen off our radar screens as we rush through our hectic lives.
Yet, only a month ago, when the year was still new and it was the time for a fresh start, our resolutions meant something important to us. Each resolution was—and still is—a statement to ourselves that something serious needed to change. We know we can’t stay stuck in our familiar ruts. We’re ready to be a better version of ourselves.
So where did that resolve go? What happened to the determination to make a fresh start and replace old habits with wise choices?
Change is painful and can feel impossible sometimes because it triggers our body’s inner alarm system. The alarm in your brain, the amygdala, doesn’t like it when something is different. Different could mean trouble. So the alarm tells our body to pump out the stress hormones and pulls up distressing thoughts and feelings from our memory centers, in order to drive us to get back to what seems like a comfortable place of old habits.
But you are more capable of change than you know. Every day we make numerous changes, and we don’t realize it. You think you’re stressed by your fast paced life; you feel like everything is chaotic. But you constantly adapt, taking charge and making your life as good as it can be even when it is ambiguous and complex. We may not like change, but it is, in fact, what’s sets us free from the worst aspects of stress: the tedious grind of not really living when we’re stuck on autopilot.
There are three kinds of change that trigger the brain’s alarm: unexpected, traumatic, and planned. In each situation, there is an opportunity right alongside the crisis, a way to focus that will allow you to handle change with a sense of calm and confidence.
Unexpected change, whether a re-org at work or a snowstorm that was supposed to be fair skies, brings with it the alarm’s signals that something is wrong. Those alarm signals may take the form of feelings of sadness, worry, guilt, or frustration. Mindless habits can be a distraction from those unpleasant feelings and the uncomfortable thoughts that accompany them—but nothing really changes. As a result, our inner alarm stays turned on and sooner or later we’re feeling upset or miserable again, and nothing has changed for the better. The way to make unexpected change an opportunity is to pay attention to the challenge that change is posing, instead of trying to distract ourselves. Whether change happens for a reason or is just random, it always poses a challenge: to re-examine the beliefs or choices, the lifestyles or relationships, that we have taken for granted and might either need more thoughtful attention or serious reconsideration.
Traumatic change, whether natural disaster, violence, or a serious accident or sudden illness, turns our alarm on red alert. That’s when we feel like the world is going to end, or that the world as we knew it really has ended. Traumatic change confronts us with an immediate challenge—survival, and a much longer-term challenge—transforming our lives to preserve what we value while adjusting to a radically new “normal.”
The brain’s alarm is an expert at the adjustment process, but it takes the whole brain, and the heart, to remember that there is more to life after trauma than just survival. In the wake of traumatic change, focusing on our core values and life commitments can be incredibly difficult, yet those are the constants that are the best—and often only—guide when trauma forces us to confront deeply painful changes.
Finally, there’s planned change, for example the changes you resolved to make for this new year. Planned change may seem much easier than change that is unexpected or traumatic, but it still makes us uncomfortable. We know it’s happening, we don’t like it, but we have time to prepare for the discomfort.
When planned changes get stalled or left unfinished or never really started, it’s not a lack of desire in most cases, but our alarm that shuts us down. To the alarm, change, even planned change, equals danger. It takes more discipline to set a goal and stick with it when the change is coming from our own decisions rather than from unexpected or traumatic events. But when the goal is based on what we truly value in life and who we are as a person, that focus can make change really happen. The key to sustained success in making a planned change is to pay as much, if not more, attention to the push-back from your brain’s alarm as to the change itself.
We’ve found a good way to do this is to create a new habit that is mindful, rather than mindless like most other habits. The habit is mental focusing. It is as simple as one-two-three, or as we’ve learned to do it, S-O-S:
This can be done anywhere, anytime (as long as you don’t close your eyes while driving). Every time you focus your mind in this way, you’ll find it easier to remember and actually make the effort to make a planned change. You’ve turned down the alarm in your brain and reminded yourself to pay attention to what’s important in life.
Once you’re focused on what you value and who you are as a person, change makes more sense and becomes real. But you can’t do this just once or twice and expect dramatic results—to harness the power of your brain to make important changes, it’s necessary to live every day in a focused way. Not every moment, but returning to your focus repeatedly during the day.
Change can be truly life affirming if we use it to sharpen and focus our minds. The essence of a fresh start is not simply a change in behavior, it’s a fundamental change in our hearts and minds and a focus on what we value and who we are.
When change is based on what we deeply value and believe in, then change is not just a temporary diversion, but a return to who we truly are as a person. Thankfully, we have the ability to focus on what matters to us during times of transition. That’s the good news, but the bad news is that most of us haven’t decided to seize be clear about what beliefs and values are most important and stay focused on them when we are uncomfortable. We can though, and that’s the secret to turning the alarm down in the face of change.
Helpful Reminders During Challenging Times
Helen Keller once wrote: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” As we navigate through challenging times toward a better future, it’s useful to visit some tried and true ideas regarding life hardiness and resiliency. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a reminder of some existential ideas we sometimes set aside as we tend to the hectic details of daily life.
1. The power of perspective
Life is not always easy. We all know that. How we choose the way we think, feel, and act in relation to life’s challenges can often make the difference between hope versus despair, optimism versus frustration, and victory versus defeat. With every challenging situation we encounter, ask questions such as “What is the lesson here?” “How can I learn from this experience?” “What is most important now?” and “If I think outside the box, what are some better answers?” The higher the quality of questions we ask, the better the quality of answers we will receive. Ask constructive questions based on learning and priorities, and we can gain the proper perspective to help us tackle the situation at hand.
“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
- Thomas A. Edison
2. Don’t focus on the mud
We should learn from the past, but not be stuck in it. Sometimes life circumstances and personal setbacks can haunt and prevent us from seeing our true potential and recognizing new opportunities. What has already happened we cannot change, but what is yet to happen we can shape and influence. At times the first step is simply to break from the past and declare that it is you, not your history, who’s in charge. Ask empowering questions such as “What matters to me now?” “How can I make a difference in this situation?” and “What’s the next step for my best interest and well-being?” Every moment we’re alive we can make new choices that help us move on and step toward a better future. If we pay attention to only mud on the ground after a storm, we won’t notice that the sky above us has already cleared. Goethe reminds us: “Nothing is worth more than this day.” Don’t focus on the mud. Make better choices today and move on.
3. All you have to do is ask…the right individuals
In life we sometimes may feel like we’re walking alone, but we don’t have to be as long as we’re honest with ourselves, and ask for help when needed. You can find strength and support through a “board of advisors” you create. These are your “go-to” people when you’re in need of sound advice, a new perspective, a certain expertise, or simply an empathetic ear. Members of the board can include individuals you know whose opinions you respect and character you trust. Your personal B.O.A. can also include your role models from past and present, historical or fictional. Ask, for example: “What would (role model A) say about my situation?”, or “What would (role model B) do if she were in my shoes?” Asking for help is not the same as complaining. Habitual complainers dwell on what’s wrong. Successful people assume responsibility for finding the support they need to solve the problem.
“Normal people have problems. The smart ones get help.”
- Daniel Amen
4. Thrive on your strengths while exploring new potential
We each have certain dispositions in which we naturally excel. Some of us are great with people, others are handy with tools, yet others thrive on information. A mismatch between what you’re naturally good at and your work in life is wasted potential. There are a myriad of assessment tools available that can help you determine your natural strengths, as well as your areas of greatest potential.
“When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors, and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.”
- Joseph Campbell
5. Keep the fun and enjoyment
Van Wilder from the movie of the same name said: “You shouldn’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive.” No matter how difficult the circumstances, resolve to keep the fun and enjoyment in your life. Make a point to take a “mini-vacation” everyday; be it walking in the park, exercising, hugging a loved one, or taking a nice, hot bath. The more challenging and stressful life is, the more important it is to take good care of yourself so you can relax your body, ease your mind, and rejuvenate your spirit. After recharging your batteries, you may see the same situation in a different, more positive light.
6. Keep your options open
There are many paths to opportunity, success, and happiness. We can begin by asking ourselves what true success and happiness means and looks like to us, and let our answers show the way. When one path seems to be at a dead end, look another way and see what new openings may be waiting just around the corner. Options can come from consulting the aforementioned board of advisors, thinking outside the box, daring to dream, doing something different, or simply letting go of a habit or condition that has clearly outlived its usefulness. We’re never stuck unless we have blinders on. Keep your options open.
“We must dare to think ‘unthinkable’ thoughts. We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world.”
- James W. Fulbright
7. Keep the faith
There are many ways to keep your faith alive: Faith in yourself, faith in your place in this world, and faith in answers the Universe has in store for you. Go to places and engage in activities that give you the greatest feeling of inner peace. When you give yourself this gift on a regular basis, what psychologists call the Higher Self emerges, as insights, inspiration, and a sense of deep knowing spring forth from the depth of your soul.
The following quote by Anne Frank is just one example: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”
As you immerse yourself in peace, ask: “What if what I’m going through is a blessing in disguise? What greater meaning exists for me now?” Put forth these and any other constructive questions that come straight from your heart. Don’t try to figure out the answers during these moments, but rather “empty your mind” and let the solutions come to you. The answers may come at that moment or later: sometimes when the time is right; sometimes when you least expect them. All you have to do is hold the questions and pay attention.
Keep the faith. Find your peace within, and the answers will come!
8. Resolve to never, ever give up
I once heard a courageous person say that there are no losers in life, except for those who give up on themselves. If you’re still alive and breathing, your purpose in this life time is not yet fulfilled. The great adventure is in discovering what that purpose is, and to live it until your last breath. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably being pulled by an inner calling to do more. That calling is your adventure waiting to happen. What are you waiting for? And what are you willing to do now?
“Abraham Lincoln lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown before he became the president of the United States.”
- Wall Street Journal
“If you don’t have the capacity to change yourself and your own attitudes, then nothing around you can be changed.”
- Anwar Sadat
“The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”
- Helen Keller
What makes a new beginning feel like a challenge is that not knowing yet if we’ll succeed or fail. In order to predict the outcome, we project what we have experienced in the past onto the new venture. That can be a problem.
But there is a state of mind that we can tap into when starting something new. In Zen Buddhism it’s called ‘beginner’s mind,’ state of freshness where you experience everything anew in each moment. It means that you have no expectations, no fixed view of yourself, anything is possible. Here are some ways to adopt ‘beginner’s mind’ to make your new start in 2014 easier.
Focus on action. We tend to imagine future outcomes instead of focusing on the present, which can create anxiety. The trick is to focus on one step at a time, rather than the whole journey. If you begin to struggle, ask yourself, ‘What is the next step?’
Fall down seven times, get up eight times. Toddlers are well versed in the practice of pulling themselves back up again every time they fall, but adults often forget that when learning new skills, they will ‘fall’ several times before they succeed. We need to cultivate an attitude where we recognise stumbling as ‘I’m learning’, and continue with determination.
Banish negative thoughts. Fear breeds negative thoughts. When we are on the verge of something new, negative thoughts can derail us. There is a simple way to let go of them by using an ‘Uplift Bracelet’. You can use an elastic wrist bracelet for this strategy. By simply changing the bracelet to the other wrist each time you have a negative thought, you can train yourself to be more positive.
Let go of ‘shoulds’. When we are about to start something new, our family and friends are usually only too happy to give their opinion of what we should or shouldn’t be doing. ‘Shoulds’ are other people’s ideas of what our lives should be like, and can hinder us from moving forward. Every time you encounter a should, ask: ‘Say’s who?’